The Blighted Groves of Academe

The more I read about the state of our colleges and universities, the more thankful I am that I quit my job at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown (UPJ) in 2001, after thirty-two years of teaching. I wrote the following essay a dozen years ago, and since then, matters have gotten progressively worse, not just where I worked but at nearly every school in the country. At least I did not have to face the nasty right-wing students who spy on their professors and do the bidding of the professional witch hunters who spew hatred on radio talk shows, and television programs like those hosted by Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck. Nor did I have to witness the craven capitulation of college administrators to the thought police that we have seen recently. One of the most outrageous cases was the firing of Professor Ward Churchill by the University of Colorado. I was living in Colorado a couple of years ago when he was dismissed. The talk radio shows attacked Churchill every day for at least a year. The alleged reason for the professor’s discharge was academic dishonesty. He was found guilty, for example, of claiming that there was documentation for some things he said in his books when there was not, most notably his charge of intentional genocide perpetrated by the colonists and the U.S. government on American Indians. The administration’s handpicked committees searched through his published works, including the footnotes, to uncover what to me seemed like, at best, academic misdemeanors, such as could be found in nearly every academician’s works. The real reason for going after Churchill was in retaliation for remarks he made after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, in which he referred to some of the financial workers in the Twin Towers as “little Eichmanns.” Remarkably, these comments went virtually unnoticed for several years, until a few little-known academics and well-known witch hunters went on a rampage of public assaults on Churchill’s 9/11 essay and on his academic integrity. Once this orchestrated war got underway, all hell broke loose. The governor of Colorado even phoned the university’s chancellor and demanded that Churchill be fired. After this, a chain of events took place that made a mockery of due process. Right now, Churchill’s civil suit is winding down in a Denver courtroom. There is a good chance he will win, and I hope he does. [NOTE: JUST AFTER I POSTED THIS, THE JURY RULED IN CHURCHILL’S FAVOR!  HOWEVER, THEY AWARDED HIM NO PUNITIVE DAMAGES.  AS I UNDERSTAND IT, BACKPAY AND REINSTATEMENT ARE UP TO THE JUDGE.  THE UNIVERSITY WILL HAVE TO REIMBURSE CHURCHILL’S ATTORNEYS FEES, WHICH ARE SEVERAL HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS.]  But imagine the chilling impact of this case on the willingness of professors, especially those without tenure, to speak truth to power.

One thing I did witness before I retired was the unwillingness of tenured faculty to put up much resistence to what was happening in their workplaces. To maintain their often considerable privileges, (so considerable that many of them have continued to “teach” into their dotage, cheating their students and denying young scholars employment), they kept silent while their administrations hired horrendously exploited adjuncts and graduate students to teach most of the classes. They refused to join hands with the part-timers when the latter tried to unionize. They agreed to every effort by their superiors to operate universities as if they were capitalist business enterprises, which, unfortunately, in practice, they often were. They agreed, as well, to allow the most demeaning kind of student and administrative oversight of what they did, and they ran roughshod over their untenured colleagues, always under the guise that they were maintaining “standards.” Tenured faculty have left those who will follow a university system in which tenure has been gutted, faculty speech sharply curtailed, and business interests firmly in command.

Anyway, enjoy the essay.


I do not think that many UPJ faculty members would challenge the notion that the University of Pittsburgh is run by persons who are primarily managers and not academics. Certainly those on the Board of Trustees are managers and often have much experience managing large corporations. Those employed by the Board, including the Chancellor and his large staff, function as managers, although a few of them (and increasingly fewer each decade) have some reputation as scholars. Here at UPJ, our administrators have never been scholars and no more so than at present when the very titles so common to academe have been changed to reflect the managerial and business-like role those who hold these titles are expected to play. We do not go to the Dean’s office but to that of the Vice President for Academic Affairs, or VPAA.

As any management expert will tell you, the essence of management is control, control over every aspect of the enterprise. In most workplaces, the one element that can impede the ability of management to control its domain is the human element. That is why managerial control is essentially a matter of controlling the organization’s employees, or to use a word that college teachers don’t like to hear, its workers. Over the past 150 years or so, managers have devised a number of techniques for managing (controlling) their employees. These techniques have been theorized and systematized, first by Frederick Taylor, and many times since by his disciples. It is possible to learn these techniques and the theory behind them in business schools, seminars, and learned journals. We must have no doubt that our administrators have studied the theory and practice of managerial control and that they are busy applying what they have learned.

The most comprehensive system of managerial control has been pioneered by Japanese automobile manufacturers and is known to its critics as “lean production.” It is based upon the twin ideas that every aspect of work must be controlled to the greatest degree possible and that the employees must be led to believe not only that this is good for them but that they have some real say in directing their enterprise. With our faculty senate and its ideology of shared governance, many of us have already absorbed the second idea (UPJ’s president has used “focus groups,” which serve the same purpose and have the advantage of being controlled by him more directly than the senate, which on rare occasion challenges administrative authority). The first idea, however, is more radical, and poorly or not all understood by most of us.

The control over work is necessary if management is to contain costs and enlarge the organization’s surplus. There are many aspects to lean production, some of which need not concern us, at least yet, because they are impossible (at least so far) to apply to teachers. For example, the job of teaching college students is not as susceptible as are most other jobs to Tayloristic time and motion studies (But see historian David Noble’s fine article, “Digital Diploma Mills,” Monthly Review, Feb. 1998, pp. 38-52, for evidence that this is being considered). Nor is the utilization of “just-in-time” inventory, an innovation in which a firm keeps no stock on hand but rather has it delivered just as needed, usually by an outside contractor (Here again, however, the use of part-time teachers called upon just as needed, i.e. without advance notice, can be considered a form of just-in-time).

Those features of lean production that are applicable to teaching are the detailed division of labor, systematic hiring, stressing the system (what the Japanese call “kaizen” or constant improvement), and mechanization. The use of the division of labor is based upon the “Babbage principle,” after the mathematician and entrepreneur, Charles Babbage (inventor of the first computer). The idea is to substitute lesser-skilled (or cheaper) labor for skilled (or more expensive) labor whenever possible. This we see being done with a vengeance with the proliferation of part-time, temporary, non-tenure stream, and (in the central campus in Pittsburgh) graduate student instructors. As more expensive faculty retire or leave, they will be replaced whenever possible with cheaper and less secure people. For example, it makes no sense to managers that I teach two sections of Intro to Economics, a course which, from their point of view, can be taught by anyone minimally qualified. So when I leave Pitt, I will not likely be replaced with a full-time faculty member but with part-timers. The two other courses I teach each term can either be dropped, or if needed, taught by other part-timers or shifted to the remaining teachers on an overload basis.[Note: after I quit, none of my courses were taught and no on was hired].

Systematic hiring fits in nicely with the Babbage principle. The idea here is to hire people who can be easily controlled. Of course, most new teachers do not have to be controlled, since they have already learned that they must behave themselves if they want to get tenure (this, in turn, is partly a function of the glut of new teachers brought about by the use of part-timers, temporaries, etc.). But part-timers and the like are, almost by definition, so insecure that they will not rock the boat, no matter what the administration does.

The two most important control mechanisms, in my view, are the stress now being placed upon our system and mechanization in the form of computers. On an automobile assembly line, stress is delivered by speeding up the assembly line, reducing the amount of materials available to workers, or taking a person off the line. Sooner or later, a bottleneck appears along the line, indicated by flashing lights. Then the management focuses attention on the trouble spot and the workers, usually grouped into teams, are expected to solve the problem, but without the stress being removed. When they solve the problem (by working faster, for example), management has gained a reduction in unit cost. Here at UPJ, the stress takes the form of recurring budget cuts (these are usually blamed on outside forces but are really the result of a well-thought out plan). We are then expected to continue to teach an increasing number of students with fewer resources. We are encouraged to believe that we must all pull together to get through the crisis, though a minute’s reflection would tell us that the crisis is permanent and has already consumed most of our work lives and that we suffer (as do all of the school’s other workers such as secretaries, maintenance and custodial, and food service employees) disproportionately to the top administrators, who continue to draw the largest salaries and whose staffs continue to grow. We “alleviate” the stress by teaching more overloads, doing more class preparations, agreeing to larger class sizes, foregoing sabbaticals, never asking for release time, paying for our own conference trips, making fewer copies of articles, concurring with the hiring of more part-timers and temporary instructors, and so forth.

The electronic revolution confronts us with the most extreme assault on our traditional patterns of work. The handwriting is on the wall. The future will see more and more distance education, the cloning of lectures captured on video and sent out over the web, the forcing of faculty to put their courses online, increased electronic monitoring of faculty effort, and other such methods of substituting capital for labor. If you do not believe me, just read the Noble article cited above. Teaching as traditionally practiced is labor intensive, and the labor is not especially cheap. These facts are inimical to sound business practice, so the obvious remedy is to replace us with machines, the prices of which have been falling for quite awhile.

It is reasonable to ask why all of this is happening. The proliferation of administrative staff, the extraordinarily high salaries paid to top administrators and research faculty, the tremendous expansion of buildings, laboratories, and computing equipment suggest that it is not a true financial crisis that is to blame. Rather, I think that the universities have become centers of accumulation, or, to put it more bluntly, places in which a lot of money can be made. Universities today are more concerned about generating patentable research, often the basis for spinoff businesses owned by researchers and administrators, and the corresponding alliance with private corporations (which supply computer software and hardware, purchase the patentable research, form partnerships with researchers and administrators, and supply employment for the higher ups in the academy when they leave academe) than with anything else. It may seem heretical to some for me to say it, but the University, in my opinion, has no sincere commitment whatever to the education of undergraduates. If it did, it would not be employing the lean production techniques outlined above, all of which are harmful to the production of educated human beings. Undergraduates are simply a major source of the large sums of money needed to convert the university from a school into a business. These expenses are the main reason why tuition has risen by a much greater percentage than have prices for so many years. And now that further tuition increases are getting difficult to sustain, the university is coming after us, ruthlessly cutting the cost of instruction and pressuring us to work harder (I should note that some money has to be spent on students, mainly to entertain them. In addition, students must be led to believe that their “education” is the reason why their wages will be higher after graduation than they would have been had they not gone to college. It really makes no difference to the university and, sad to say, to most of them, whether they learn anything or not).

In the face of what is nothing less than an attack upon the craft of teaching, the reactions of the teachers are remarkably passive. Here at UPJ, some of us keep our heads firmly in the sand; a few of us have actually become cheerleaders for lean production. Others continue to rely upon the myth that it is the central campus that is at fault, not grasping the fact that our administrators are firmly positioned in the corporate hierarchy that is implementing all of these policies. If our administrators were really on our side, they would understand that in a war, the generals have to do more than make private pleas. They have to rouse the troops to action. If UPJ wanted more money from the University, it would try to put enough pressure on the University to get it. It would mobilize faculty, staff, and students to write letters, send emails, march and demonstrate in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg [the state capitol], raise a fuss in public meetings, and other such direct actions until the University capitulated. But, of course, this is unimaginable. No matter how odious our administrators might think a particular university decision is, they always go along. They know who butters their bread. The university has decided to try to break the union of maintenance and custodial workers over pathetically small sums of money (to the university, though not to the financially strapped and hardworking employees), a truly rotten thing to do, but not so awful that any of our administrators would take a public stand against it.

Probably the most common faculty response is cynicism. We distance ourselves from the college and refuse to participate much in its affairs. This is an understandable response; after all, the crisis forced upon us causes a lot of pain and anguish. But even as we are cynical, we do indeed continue to solve the pressures created by the continued stressing of our system. We do give up our sabbaticals; we do teach larger classes; we do pile on the overtime; we do not challenge our division heads when they tell us there is no money for anything; we act as if it is impossible to do anything about the shrinking of the tenure stream faculty. We are in worse shape than the lambs sent to slaughter. Unlike the lambs, we can think. We could resist but we do not.

What might we do? In the end, our only hope is to organize ourselves, both at our own workplaces and with teachers around the world. But for most faculty, this is too big of a step to take immediately. So, in the short term, perhaps we can do some things to show the administrators that we know what is going on and that we do not like it. First, we can begin to speak out, in meetings and in private conversations. When the President and the VPAA say something ridiculous or simpleminded, we must challenge them. We can challenge the policies of the administrators with speeches, with letters, with petitions, with emails, to them, to the media, to politicians, to board members, any way we can. Second, we can refuse to participate in our own demise. We can insist on our leaves and let the university turn us down. And we can appeal the decision and make it public. We can refuse to teach overload. We can refuse to give up our syllabi and resist any administrative prying into our classrooms. We can, at least if we are tenured, refuse to give student evaluations; if we do give them, we can refuse to show them to any administrator. These can only be used against us, as is also the case for our year-end dossiers, which, because the evaluation of them is subjective and based upon a personal weighting of numbers or entries, are totally manipulable. We can refuse to serve on committees, including those which hire new faculty members. Third, we can offer our support to any group on campus, such as students or other employees, who are resisting being sacrificial lambs.

Perhaps the cynics are right, and nothing will come of any efforts we make on our own behalf. I do not believe this, and the history of resistance movements tells me that it is not true. But even if we accomplish little, at least we will stop living on our knees.

6 Responses to The Blighted Groves of Academe

  1. Louis Proyect April 2, 2009 at 8:37 pm #

    For some interesting points of agreement on this post, I recommend a visit to Marc Bousquet’s website: and especially the excerpt from his book “How the University Works”. The chapter is titled “Students are already workers”:

  2. Mike B) April 8, 2009 at 4:16 am #

    I posted this to my Facebook page. And yeah, students are workers in training within the education industry.

  3. John April 11, 2009 at 10:24 am #

    Venture Capitalists are running educational instutions designed to provide free education for all to provide equality as for profit businesses and ruining it. It is the ultimate hypocracy. Public education should be free of fees and available to all.

  4. MF Lehman April 20, 2009 at 2:49 am #

    Too many years since I was in the academy, but this sure explains a lot of things seen from the outside which seemed curious but disconnected to me. Horrifying, but thanks anyway.

  5. Mark E. Smith April 26, 2009 at 6:49 am #

    Unlike the failed banking industry and the outsourced manufacturing industries, the U.S. health care industry, education industry, and prison industry remain profitable. Unfortunately, their profits derive from the destruction of the human body, mind, and spirit.

  6. Vermillion October 22, 2009 at 5:46 pm #

    “It may seem heretical to some for me to say it, but the University, in my opinion, has no sincere commitment whatever to the education of undergraduates. If it did, it would not be employing the lean production techniques outlined above, all of which are harmful to the production of educated human beings.”

    I think you should read Ivory tower blues,

    I’d be interested to read a blogpost and a review of your beefs and criticisms of the book, I imagine you’d have a lot to say to about their work.

    I think the system is making every one jaded, and quite frankly most of the students don’t truly care about being educated they are little capitalists themselves. They see their degree as a mealticket to the middle class, they are absolutely desperate to avoid poverty.

    Only a small minority wants to be educated, the rest do not care and just want the piece of paper. I think you are REALLY idealistic about school, when I was in school I hated it because it was forced and so many useless irrelevant assignments were given, IMHO school is a big example of the class system (i.e. artifical grading), especially in university, universities scream class like no other instutition (i.e. bell curve grading?). I think grades can never truly capture someone’s abilities or their creativity and what they are ultimately capable of since in capitalist society most of a persons time is spread too thin (both teachers and students) to really develop their talents.

    I didn’t learn to enjoy learning until I got out of school. The wonderful thing about the internet is that it allows one to learn what one is interested in and read articles and books by those who are generally enthusiastic about their interests, so you can find people of like mind and learn a tonne from them.

    I do believe schools are not haven’s of learning anymore because let’s face it – they are so resource deprived and intergenerational issues arise with the majority of teachers being out of touch with the private sector, when I was a kid I wanted to make video games but there were no such teachers and our schools weren’t equipped nor had staff that had any idea how to use computers and that was common for a vast majority of schools for when I was in school.

    Also the public schools are havens of mediocrity, I know looking back on my own life that public schools when I went to school were just staffed by the clueless, I’m not sure if it was the school board or what public schools are usually “bottom of the barrel” in terms of talent.

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